Monday, 12 January 2015

Hello Peter Porter and water birds. But an ancient hazel provides the last good finds for 2014

Taking the car for its regular service on the 1st had its usual benefits.  Leave car at garage then walk!  On this occasion I turned right and then right again onto the B970 and then through the gate onto Revack Estate, initially following the Explore Abernethy path towards Nethybridge.  Still, in the back of my mind was the request from HBRG to look for the large willow aphid on willows (of course) and as usually none were found.  A dried sap run on a very old birch produced
Peter Porter tree illustration from
RSAS excursion 1894
what is becoming a quite regular feature, a population of Sclerophora peronella pinhead lichens, and, from the damp flush close by, a woodcock was disturbed. 
RSAS excursion report 1894
It would be interesting to know what the wintering population of this bird is locally: on almost every outing I have to say ‘sorry’ as yet another woodcock is disturbed from habitat where it is obviously searching for food.  I really should try to make a note of location and forward to BTO Birdtrack, but with so many
1st photo of Peter Porter tree
from In the Shadow of Cairngorm book
ca. 1900
other things ending up in the diary (see later) I might never get round to forwarding the records.  I digress.  After a mile or so, the way-marked route exits the woods and enters agricultural lands where I am always tempted to visit the old farm ruins at Brae of Revack (NJ03562416).  Despite it being early December I listed the following plants - prickly sow-thistle, lesser burdock, nettle, ribwort plantain and single elder sapling and the lichens Peltigera membranacea and the map lichen Rhizocarpon geographicum.  A roof slate neatly covered in bits of turf by the ruin’s wall revealed a legal fen trap beneath,
Peter Porter tree 2008
awaiting any inquisitive small mammal.  Searching some of the next half mile of willow scrub failed to find any aphids but did produce a new site for the green shield moss.  Back on the track I headed for the B970 and the old Nethy Kirk where I had arranged a lift with Janet.  Along the way I was tempted to see if the famous old (now dead) Scots pine known as ‘Peter Porter’ was still standing.  So, one last departure from the track eventually brought me face to face with the old leviathan, looking much the same as when I last photographed it in 2008 apart from one of the bigger limbs having fallen off.  This tree was once a well-known local feature with many Nethybridge residents making outings each year to see it.  In 1894, the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society had an excursion to Strathspey, Moray and Banffshire, visiting “Peter Porter” during their Strathspey outing, producing the first illustration I can find of the tree in their excursion report.  Then, in 1900, The Rev. W. Forsyth, Minister of Abernethy and Kincardine wrote the now famous book “In the Shadow of Cairngorm” complete with a description and photo of the tree.  It is difficult for me to understand why this particular tree produced so much interest, knowing
Peter Porter tree December 2014
that Abernethy Forest has many such trees, many still alive, but perhaps the detail provided by The Rev. Forsyth gives an insight as to why the tree became famous - “The biggest trees remaining [Scots pines in Abernethy] are to be found at Carn Chnuic, Sleighich, and Craigmore. One of these in the last named locality bears the name of ‘Peter Porter.’  The Grants at the port or ferry of Balliefurth were called "porters," and it is said that one of them of the name of Peter had taken a contract to cut down a certain number of trees on Craigmore, but that when he came to tackle this giant of the wild, he shrunk from the task. It would not pay.  So the tree stands to this day, bearing his name, and an object of admiration to hundreds of visitors from year to year.  It is 80 feet in height, 14 feet in girth, with huge branches and wide spreading cable-like roots, and must be about 300 years old.”  In 2010 the book was reprinted, complete with page stains and blemishes, and contains tales of local folklore from the 19th
Original copy of In the Shadow
of Cairngorm 1900
century.  If you want to buy the original it could set you back around £250.  Despite its famous past history I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only person to visit it more than once in the last decade.  And for me, the tree is worth visiting if only to try and name some of the many pinhead lichens hiding in nooks and crannies of its ancient trunk, three of which I am still puzzling over!  There is no shortcut to ancientness and Peter will continue to be an important lump of biodiversity rich habitat for another hundred years.  Interested?  It can be found at NJ02665 21693.  Thank you to neighbour Rita for all the historical information about this tree.  Back on the track I headed quickly down the hill to make my 2pm rendezvous with Janet at the Old Kirk carpark.

Checking of sites locally for aspens, as described last month, continued, with a great outing on the 4th.  The map had several numbered red polygons to find and check, mainly in an area close to Guislich Farm on Rothiemurchus estate.  Close to the old farm buildings a group of known aspens were GPS-ed and counted (known sites are blue on the maps), these trees being the same ones
Red spot is Marchandiomyces corallinus
growing on Parmelia sulcata lichen
that produced the rare fungus growing on aspen flowers back in May.  The first red dot of the day though would be more of a challenge to find and thankfully I had spent a bit of time working out an approximate grid reference using the brilliant Grab a Grid Ref website.  In the middle of a dense patch of junipers the red dot turned out to be an ancient rowan, but the next red dot produced a group of 4 mature trees and the first record for the National Park for the lichen parasite Marchandiomyces corallinus growing on the very common Parmelia sulcata lichen.  Wandering on across bog and bog-woodland following my GPS the next red dot turned out to be a group of dead Scots pines.  I then exited the
Rinanuan croft
trees to follow a track leading to a ruined croft by the name of Rinanuan.  This ruin isn’t too far from the old TV transmitter mast on a hill above the Sluggan Pass.  The ruin, surrounded by what was once fairly basic pasture with the odd waxcap fungus still present, had amazing views across to the Cairngorms, but standing there one had to wonder how anyone once made a living from this area of open moorland.  Suddenly I was aware of the deep "cruc cruc" calls of a
nearby raven and was just lucky enough to see the calling bird drop down to the ground, possible for a late afternoon feed on a bit of carrion.  A second bird then flew to join the first but within a couple of minutes both birds were up and flying only to land together in a nearby pine tree, less than a hundred metres away.  Tree, ravens and snowy Cairngorms backdrop – just time for a quick photo with the wee compact camera before heading off towards the next red dot location.  A symmetrically shaped pile of stones by the track looked like an old lime-kiln, the location noted for passing on to local lime-kiln enthusiast Donald, just in
Distant view of Duke of Gordon monument
case it wasn’t known.  The light rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon suddenly stopped and for the last hour of my outing I was blessed with an amazing burst of late afternoon sun, setting the red bark of the pines aglow and, in the far off distance, highlighting the Duke of Gordon monument against a backdrop of hills around Kingussie.  Brilliant!  The last red dot for the day turned out to be a group of willow bushes, once again covered with the white scale insects (Chionaspis salicis) recorded earlier in the year on both
Chionaspis salicis scale insects
willows and aspens, but no willow aphids.  As the sun continued to shine I made my way back down the hill towards the track leading to the B970 and the car.  The track produced the last nice finds of the day, a huge patch of stag’s-horn clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) creeping down the track-side bank and then, popping up from the centre of the track a couple of fruiting bodies of the weirdly shaped hooded false morel (Gyromitra infula), one of the rarer finds of the day.  Passing a herd of highland cattle, with calves, I was tempted to try and capture a photo of “glowing” cows backlit by the setting sun, but the general darkness was just too much for the wee camera.  However, back at the car the rising,
Stag's-horn clubmoss
almost full moon provided a nice end to the day.  Four hours of wandering allowed 5 “red map dots” to be visited: just one providing a record of actual aspens but, just as valuable, a notebook page of “other” records.  By the end of December, 5 other aspen maps had been completed, most having plenty of aspens at the locations to check and one, close to Kincardine Church (by the B970) having the most amazing collection of rarer lichens two of which have the amazing names of Fuscopannaria mediterranea and Leptogium saturnium.

The next day we were off for a long weekend with daughter Laura and Douglas, armed with camera and big lens for a chance to capture a few shots of some of their amazing garden birds.  A visit to Fyvie Castle on the first afternoon allowed just enough time to visit walled gardens, adjacent woodlands and loch where we
Calling pink-feet overhead
saw coot, moorhen, mute swans, all rarish birds local to Nethybridge, along with the more familiar goldeneye and greylag geese.  We even managed to photograph a red squirrel feeding on an abundant crop of beech nuts.  Sun and frost combined to provide a perfect end to the outing.  Next morning Laura and myself braved the heavy frost to wander the quiet roads by their house just to watch the amazing fly-by of thousands of mainly pink-footed geese as they
One of many tree sparrows
made their way from roost site to feeding sites in the surrounding fields.  However, the highlight for me was huge numbers of tree sparrows now resident around their house, the population possible being boosted by a good supply of nest box sites and plentiful supply of bird food.  In one photo we counted 30 tree sparrows and our best estimate put their numbers at around 50 birds!  An
amazing sight particularly with this bird being non-existent in our home area.  Just time in the afternoon for a visit to Haddo House and a walk round another loch, with little grebe, teal and tufted duck allowing the compact camera’s zoom lens to be tested again. Best shot of the day had to be the low-sun shadow shot as we all walked along the main drive.  The drive back home the next day saw us undertaking cautious driving as the first serious snow of the winter started to fall.

A little bit of follow up work was undertaken at the Flowerfield orchid site (as covered last month re a possible chalet development), mainly checking some of the older trees which might be affected, to see if they supported any unusual mosses, fungi or lichens.  One find was a small ladybird which turned out to be the cream-spot ladybird with the amazing scientific name of Calvia quattuordecimguttata the latter being abbreviated to 14-guttata!  During the
Misty Alvie stone circle aligned for the
winter solstice
month the snow came and went with a maximum depth of four inches and a low temperature of -8 degrees centigrade.  Christmas Day with daughter Ruth and family was a brilliant gathering, though the misty conditions as the temperature dropped during the day made for interesting views around the standing stones near her house.  A couple of days later and with clear skies, a heavy frost and
Red grouse in the snow
all day sun making for wonderful views all round as we went for a “break in eating” walk in the Lurg area on the outskirts of the village.  A recently established fenced off woodland proved attractive to a few red grouse no doubt making the most of good feeding on the lush vegetation.  Colour photos turned out as black and white ones with dark, leafless trees standing out against the snowy background.  Ian and James were also on the go moving feed to their out-wintering cattle, the natural seeds in the hay/silage keeping quite a few
A murmuration unlikely to make the telly!
rooks happy too.  A murmuration of 3 starlings posed on the overhead wires before departing to roost and a lone brown hen harrier was hunting over a field of “neeps” before also heading off to roost.  For a change of scene we headed off to the coast at Nairn for the day on the 30th enjoying calm sunny weather for our walk along the shore, with lots of other folk also making the most of the kind weather.  We headed inland to the River Nairn for the afternoon and our walk along the riverbank brought good views of a little grebe (the second of the
Goosander River Nairn
month) and a female goosander which posed just long enough for a hurried photo.  This walk, way back in February, found lots of the tiny red scarlet elf cup fungus (Sarcoscypha coccinea) growing on fallen deadwood and we were quite amazed to see a big population had already started to re-appear on one or two logs.  In places the riverside path had been washed away during the heavy rains in October and everywhere in the river were whole, huge trees, felled and wash
Early scarlet elf cup fungus
down river in the spate.  It will be interesting to see if these trees are left to their own devices or removed in case they pose problems down river if there was another big spate.  My last outing of the year took place the next day with a visit to the River Findhorn at a place called Dunearn, following the river in-land from the main road to Nairn.  Having driven through the woods in this area earlier in the year I had been impressed by the appearance of naturalness as we drove along, and it had been on my “to visit” list ever since.  However, naturalness towards the end of the single track road didn’t convert to ancientness and the birches just didn’t look like they would be home to too
Crimped gill fungus
Plicatura crispa)
many unusual species of lichens.  Lots of siskins and redpolls, but despite toiling up and down the steep slopes, I was finding little of interest.  No doubt a lichen expert would be quite happy, but with my limited knowledge and aspen trees as my favoured tree species, it wasn’t living up to my expectations.  On the drive in though I had spotted a good stand of young to ancient hazels so I hopped in the car and headed back to them.  Again, lots of fun with steep slopes but the first trees had masses of felt lichen (Peltigera collina) and the bonny wee crimped gill fungus (Plicatura crispa) so named possibly because of the
The mystery red billed bird
amazingly shaped and odd coloured gills.  Then, a small population of lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) was found, the day was getting better.  Lungwort is a lichen which has a history of use as an herbal medicine, and recent research has corroborated that some extracts may be beneficial to lung health as well as containing antioxidant properties.  The next find had me, for a wee while, scratching my head.  The remains of a predated bird, with a bright red beak, was on the ground in front of me.  The gaudy colours of a puffin’s bill flashed in
Crustose lichen
Fuscopannaria mediterranea
my mind before logic took over and I remembered seeing good numbers of red-legged partridges on the road, reared and released for sport.  This particular bird had served another purpose, keeping one of the local predators fed for a day!  Back on the road and heading back to the car I spotted a multi-stemmed, ancient hazel high up the slope above the road.  One last check for 2014?  Why not.  More felt lichen and crimped gill fungus greeted me and then I noticed one of the rarer crustose lichens on one of the bigger branches, a second location for December for Fuscopannaria mediterranea, and on the main trunk of the tree another crustose species Parmeliella triptophylla something I’ve found regularly on hazel.  I nice ending to my wanderings for 2014, and as I made my way finally back to the car a large crescent of a moon was just appearing over the trees.

An end to my wanderings yes, but not to entering all my species data and once home the last notebook entries for 2014 were added to my MapMate database.  It has been quite an interesting year for records.  The summer outings recording plants for the BSBI/CNPA project produced around 3500 personal records, but the amazing efforts of all 18 recorders added 19,800 records from areas with few plant records within the Cairngorms National Park.  A total of 633 plant species + hybrids were recorded (comprising 693 taxa).  Downloading all the records I had entered for 2014 showed I had made 6030 entries, including the plant records from above.  However, all plant records amounted to 4300 entries
NBN map for
Fuscopannaria mediterranea
with butterflies and moths reaching 370, and lichens and fungi totalling 1030.  I must have gone slightly mad in 2014 with my entries being almost 3x the total for 2013!  Amazing.  And, where do all my records end up?  All the plant records go to Andy one of our local BSBI Vice-county recorders, and are added to the BSBI database.  The butterflies and moths go to Butterfly Conservation, lichens to the British Lichen Society and the fungi to the FRDBI.  All my records go to the Highland Biological Recording Group and most of these will end up on the NBN Gateway (National Biodiversity Network) database and national mapping scheme.  A few birds make it to the BTO Birdtrack website.  What’s the point of spending time in the field looking and recording if all your records remain in your notebook!

If you enjoy the peace and quiet of the Strathspey countryside – look away now.  Over the Christmas period work started on the Aviemore Go-Kart track and the neighbouring Granish caravan site.  Despite the loss of badger and wildcat habitat, ancient oaks and aspens these projects were given the go-ahead by the Cairngorm National Park, Tourism and Development Board.  I’m now biting my tongue before I say anymore…………..

A good New Year to you all
Stewart and Janet

BTO (and click on Current Surveys Birdtrack)
British Fungi (FRDBI)
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Grandsons going "crackers"
Grandma with Harry the Gruffalo
A mystery Christmas bird
Here's to 2015 -all the best

Photos © Stewart Taylor